What is Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns' plan at running back after two declare for NFL draft?

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

UL senior running backs Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas have declared for the NFL Draft.

Combined, they produced 6,839 rushing yards (3,572 for Ragas in five seasons, 3,267 by Mitchell in four seasons), ran for 79 touchdowns (41 from Mitchell, 38 by Ragas) and were responsible for more than 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns (597 and five for Mitchell, 427 and five from Ragas).

How will the Cajuns go about replacing such productivity? Is the talent already in-house? Will more come?

“We certainly are in the process of answering those questions as we speak,” coach Billy Napier said this week.

Here’s what to know about where the Cajuns running back stable stands and what could be added to it:

Dynamic duo:UL's Ragas, Mitchell NFL Draft material

Chris Smith will handle a heftier load

Speedy Chris Smith  was the third prong in what’s been called a three-headed monster at running back for the Cajuns.

With Ragas and Mitchell both getting 130-plus carries, Smith rushed 62 times for 350 yards and 1 TD over 11 games as a redshirt sophomore in 2020.

Expect the Mississippi native to take on a much heavier load in 2021.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence with Chris Smith,” Napier said. “He’s a proven player, not only as a running back, but as a returner.”

Smith has been named to four All-American teams as a return specialist in the past few weeks, including first team by 247Sports/CBS and second team according to the Football Writers Association of America.

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UL running back Chris Smith (21) gains some yards in a Nov. 14 win over South Alabama at Cajun Field.

Emani Bailey could be next

The Cajuns are high on Texan Emani Bailey, a 5-foot-8, 201-pounder who had 10 carries for 60 yards as a freshman.

Bailey got most of his work – five late-game rushes for 28 yards – in an Oct. 31 win at Texas State. The product of Ryan High in Denton also had three carries for 27 yards, including a career-high long of 25, in a Sept. 26 win over Georgia Southern, a game Mitchell missed for COVID-19 related reasons.  

“Emani Bailey has showed us in practice that he’s a very capable player. … He’s a promising young player,” Napier said.

T.J. Wisham will be back

After rushing 15 times for 133 yards in his first season in 2019, T.J. Wisham had no carries but played on multiple special teams units. His season was limited to four games due to wrist surgery. But the transfer from Army will be back in 2021 and could contend for a spot in the rotation.

Michael Orphey Jr., who came to UL from Alexandria Senior High as a 2018 walk-on redshirt, had a 16-yard touchdown run against Texas Southern on one of his three carries in 2019 and a 48-yard TD run among four late-game carries in 2020.

Wisham and the rest, however, will contend with others for playing time behind Smith and perhaps Bailey.

“T.J. Wisham … has shown that he is an effective player,” Napier added, “but we plan on adding a number of players.”

Transfer:Former Iowa State nose guard Latrell Bankston lured to UL by Ragin' Cajuns scheme

Dre’Lyn Washington in the fold

UL needs to reload, especially after Andray Pope – a Class of 2020 signee from Hillcrest High in Evergreen, Alabama – exited the program before preseason camp even started.

The Cajuns especially will be seeking a bruiser back to fill the void left vacant by Ragas and the do-it-all in Mitchell.

“We’ll add several here in the next (signing) period,” Napier said. “It’s certainly part of our plan.”

UL already has one newcomer, adding Dre’Lyn Washington, a speedster who rushed for 5,390 career yards and 68 touchdowns at Hemphill High in Texas, where he was ranked as the nation’s No. 58 running back recruit by ESPN.com, during the NCAA's early signing period.

But Carencro High running back Kendrell Williams, a longtime UL commit who did not sign in December, picked up a fresh offer Thursday from Iowa. The Cajuns did receive a commitment Saturday, though, from Class of 2021 recruit Terrence Williams, a Many High running back.

Honorees:2020 Daily Advertiser All-Acadiana Football Team

One other possibility: Ke’Travio Hargrove, a 5-11, 185-pound Ruston High senior running back nicknamed “Bull.” The ex-Louisiana Tech commit tweeted a top five list earlier this month that includes the Bulldogs, Penn State, Memphis, Texas State and the Cajuns.

New UL quarterback signee Hunter Herring is openly lobbying for Hargrove to commit to UL, tweeting, “You know where the cULture is!!”

“It’s probably one of the areas on our team,” Napier said of the running back position, “where I think there’s an opportunity for a young player to impact that team, whether that’s a high school player, a junior college player or a transfer.”

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